Sunday, May 21, 2017

2017 College Football Preview: AAC

American Athletic Conference

Projected Order of Finish

1. USF
2. UCF
3. Temple
4. Cincinnati
5. U Conn
6. East Carolina

1. Houston
2. Memphis
3. Navy
4. Tulsa
5. SMU
6. Tulane

USF Bulls
2017 could be the year of the Bull in Tampa and in the AAC. Charlie Strong was bum rushed out of Texas, but the reality is that the chips were always stacked against his success there. Strong can still flat out coach, and he may have the best roster USF has ever had in their relatively short football history. In short, it would not shock me to see the Bulls playing in an NY6 bowl this December.
What to Be Excited About: Offense
One of the best QBs in the nation will be returning in Quinton Flowers, who sizes up as Lamar Jackson without the overall exposure. Flowers should be the absolute favorite in the preseason for AAC offensive MVP. He passed for 2812 yards last season with 24 TDs to just seven INTs, while rushing for 1530 yards and 18 scores. As he goes in 2017, so go the Bulls.
The offensive line returns three starters who started at least nine games last season in C Cameron Ruff, LG Jeremi Hall, and RT Marcus Norman. Sophomore LT Billy Atterbury started four games last season before a broken leg ended his season against Florida State. The only concern here is how this unit gels under their fifth O line coach in five seasons.
PK Emilio Nadlman will be the lone PK this fall after hitting all seven of his FG attempts last season.
What to Be Concerned About: Offense
There are two key areas of the offense that are cause for concern early, and that revolves around the loss of Marlon Mack at RB and Rodney Adams at WR. D'Ernest Johnson will get a full crack at taking over as the starting RB after rushing for 543 yards and eight scores a year ago, but he does not possess the same kind of explosiveness that Mack had, as he averaged just 4.89 yards per carry last fall. Darius Tice returns as a RS Senior as the primary backup.
As far as the receiving game goes, the Bulls lose 95 total receptions with Adams and Mack being gone, and nobody else caught as many as 30 balls last fall. Tyre McCants lines up as the Z receiver and Marquez Valdes-Scantling will line up as the X, but they combined for just 47 receptions last season, and will have to step up in a huge way in 2017.
What to be Excited About: Defense
Auggie Sanchez returns at MLB this fall after leading the team with 117 tackles last season. He also led the team with six sacks and eight TFLs. D Line leader Deadrin Senat returns at DT as well, and will help anchor down the middle of the defense. Kirk Livingstone showed pomise as a freshman last season, and will head into camp starting at DE. Bruce Hecotr returns at the other DT spot, and Mike Love moves into the starting DE spot that was open after a 27 tackle performance as a junior in 2016.
There is also decent depth on the D line behind the starters in terms of experience.
The secondary is positively loaded, with six DBs back who contributed a great deal last season in Safeties Tajee Fullwood, Jaymon Thomas, Devin Abraham, Khalid McGee, Deatrick Nichols, and Ronnie Hoggins.
Punter Jonathon Hernandez averaged 41.22 yards per punt last season as a sophomore, and he also returns.
What to Be Concerned About: Defense
This could be one of the most loaded defenses in the history of USF football in terms of talent, so there is not much to worry about. The only position that is really open as we head into fall camp would be at WLB, where sophomore Nico Swatell is staking his flag. There was no backup at the WLB position listed heading into spring, so depth at the LB position will be something that needs some focus as we head into the fall.
Schedule: 8/26 San Jose State, 9/2 Stony Brook, 9/9 at U Conn, 9/15 Illinois, 9/21 Temple, 9/30 at East Carolina, 10/14 U Mass, 10/21 at Tulane, 10/28 Cincinnati, 11/4 Houston, 11/16 Tulsa, 11/24 at UCF
Final Overview
USF, in my eyes, is in the best position of any G5 school in 2017 to break into the NY6 bowl lineup. The talent level is loaded, and USF is the absolute favorite to win the AAC. Of course, Houston was in a similar position last fall, and failed, but the Bulls are not dealing with a coach who may or may not be leaving any minute as they begin the Charlie Strong era. The hiring of Strong to replace Willie Taggart was a major move for the Bulls, and the needle is pointing straight up. USF looks like an easy 10 or 11 game winner this fall, and could be favored in all 12 games on the schedule.

UCF Knights
UCF showed significant levels of improvement in year one of the Scott Frost era, and I would find it safe to assume to bet on the fact that you should see more of that improvement in year two. The overall outlook in the Eastern Division of the AAC in 2017 shows that several members will be stepping back a bit in 2017, so this is a major opportunity for this program to step up and assert themselves, and I believe that they have the ability to do so.
What To Be Excited About: Offense
McKenzie Milton was showing some flashes by the end of the season for the Knights, and returns as the starter at QB for his sophomore campaign. With Justin Holman gone, the position is all his heading into the fall, and nobody is looking over his shoulder.
Milton will have his top target back in 2017 in Tre'quan Smith, who led the team with 853 yards receiving and five scores last fall, and sophomore Dredrick Nelson was a high school All-American, and will likely replace the departed Taylor Oldham.
Four starters return on the offensive line in LT Aaron Evans, LG Tate Hernley, RG Jordan Johnson, and RT Wyatt Miller. Do not be surprised to see Hernley kick into Center, as he has experience starting there.
PK Matthew Wright connected on 17/22 FG attempts in 2016, and returns as the starter for 2017.
What To Be Concerned About: Offense
The run game needs to develop some kind of star to help further the development of Milton at QB. Last season, not one back rushed for as much as 500 yards, and that will not cut it again. Jawon Hamilton, Adrian Killins, and Taj McGowan are all battling for carries as we head into the summer.
Behind Smith, there was not much in the way of production among the receivers in 2017, and that is another area of concern for the coaching staff.
Offensive line depth will also be an area of concern as well, as the staff has tried to find a clear cut order of rotation behind the starters that they did not have in 2016.
What To Be Excited About: Defense
The defense, which was solid last season, got hit hard by departures after 2016, and will have to rebuild in several areas. Where they are still solid is on the defensive line, where the entire two deep from the bowl game returns. Trysten Hill and Joey Connors will still likely rotate at RDE, and Brendan Hayes is in the mix for playing time there as well. Jamiyus Pittman is a beast at NG, and has 8.5 career sacks. Tony Guerad was a monster off of the edge last season, and returns at DE as well. AJ Wooten is back to backup at NG, while Seyvon Lowry will back up Guerad.
Shaquem Griffin is the lone member of the LB corps to return in 2017, but he is a good one, as he recorded 20 TFLs last season.
What To Be Concerned About: Defense
The entire back seven, save Griffin at LB, needs to be rebuilt this fall. Star CB Shaquille Griffin is gone, and so is much of the rest of the secondary, as not one starter from the bowl game returns. Rashard Causey is the main leader to replace Griffin at CB, but played in just six games last fall. Nevelle Clark is in the lead to start at CB opposite Causey, but played in a reserve/nickel role last season. Tre Neal and Kyle Gibson are the leading candidates for the Safety jobs, but Gibson played corner most of last season.
Chequan Burkett, Pat Jasinski, and Titus Davis are all in line for the open LB jobs, but were all reserves last season. Burkett and Jasinski got solid playing time, but Davis played in just six games.
A new punter will need to be identified as well, as Caleb Houston moves on. Mac Loudermilk is a rugby styled punter, but averaged just 35 yards per punt. He is the leading candidate for the job as of now.
2017 Schedule: 9/2 FIU, 9/9 Memphis, 9/16 Georgia Tech, 9/23 at Maryland, 9/30 Maine, 10/7 at Cincinnati, 10/14 East Carolina, 10/21 at Navy, 11/4 at SMU, 11/11 U Conn, 11/18 at Temple, 11/24 USF
Final Overview
The Knights have enough on offense to carry this team if a running game can be found, and some decent receivers present themselves out of this crop. The line should be more than good enough to get the work done in the trenches, and they have a solid kicker as well.
The real issue here will be on defense, where the entire back seven must be rebuilt, save Griffin. If that project cannot get off the ground in the early part of camp and the season, my projections could all be moot. Defense and the run game will be the most major areas of concern here, as is the schedule from 10/7 through 11/14, where the Knights play three road games in four weeks.

Temple Owls
Temple may very well be one of the more difficult teams to project in the AAC for 2017. Gone is Matt Ruhle, who was the architect of the success of the last few seasons in Philadelphia, and in comes defensive guru Geoff Collins, who was DC at both Florida and Mississippi State. How he transitions to being a full fledged head coach, and not just a defensive mind, will go a long way in determining if any of the recent success can continue.
What To Be Excited About: Offense
Jahad Thomas may be gone at RB, but not all is lost. Ryquell Armstead returns after a season in which he rushed for 919 yards and a tea leading 14 TDs on the season. Armstead has massive burst and should be a focal point of the offense in 2017.
Receiver should be a major strength for the new Temple QB in 2017, as the top six producing WRs return, including bowl game starters Ventell Bryant, Keith Kirkwood, and Brodrick Yancy. Bryant posted a line of 54-895-4 last fall, and Kirkwood caught 42 passes as well. There should be no shortage of targets to throw the football to.
Three starters return on the line, but Dion Dawkins has moved on, which could hurt. LG John Fair, RG Adrian Sullivan, and RT Leon Johnson all are set to return, and the top reserves at every position on the line will return as well, giving the Owls some solid depth there.
Aaron Boumerhi will return as the starting PK after hitting 15/17 FG attempts last fall.
What To Be Concerned About: Offense
Logan Marchi and Frank Nutile will take their QB battle into the spring, and there could be other candidates in the mix as well. With Phillip Walker out of the picture, this position is suddenly very unsettled. They attempted a combined eight passes last fall.
Dion Dawkins will be a load to replace at the all important LT spot. Junior Cole Boozer was his primary backup last fall, and is first in line to take over.
There will need to be a find at TE as well, as both Colin Thompson and Romond Deloatch have departed.
What To Be Excited About: Defense
The interior defensive line should be rock solid in 2017, as both DT Michael Dogbe and NT Averee Robinson return. They combined for 12.5 TFLs last fall from up the middle, and should be able to apply plenty of pressure up front.
Other than losing Nate Hairston at CB to the draft, three other starters return for the Owls in the secondary in 2017. Ariel Foster returns at one CB spot, while Sean Chandler and Delvin Randall are back at the Safety spots. Sophomore Linwodd Crump gets first crack at replacing Hairston.
What To Be Concerned About: Defense
Haason Reddick is gone to the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL, and Praise Martin-Oguike is gone at the other DE spot. That's 32.5 TFLs of productivity gone on one season, and that is going to take some work to replace. Avaery Ellis was Martin-Oguike's backup last season, and he is gone as well. Jacob Martin gets first shot at Reddick's spot.
All three starting LB spots must be replaced in fall camp, as Avery Williams, Jarred Alwan, and Stephaun Marshall all move on. William Kwenkeu and Jeremiah Atoki get first shot at filling in the starting jobs outside, but both are merely sophomores this fall. Junior Jared Folks is next in line at the MLB position.
The Punting game was a bit of a mess last season, as Alex Starzyk averaged just 38.96 yards per punt last fall. He is returning, but either they need more from him, or a replacement must be identified. Boumerhi can punt if needed.
2017 Schedule: 9/2 Notre Dame, 9/9 Villanova, 9/15 U Mass, 9/21 at USF, 9/30 Houston, 10/7 at East Carolina, 10/14 U Conn, 10/21 at Army, 11/2 Navy, 11/10 at Cincinnati, 11/18 UCF, 11/25 at Tulsa
Final Overview:
It's going to be an interesting go in year one of the Geoff Collins era for the Owls. First thing he will have to do is find a new QB to replace Phillip Walker, and that will not be easy. He also has to replace Dion Dawkins on the line, making matters more difficult.
The defense may have some issues on the edge and in the middle, as both DEs and all three LBs need to be replaced, and losing Hairston at CB is another major hole to fill.
The schedule is not kind late, but it is not impossible, so the win/loss total should be set right around six for the Owls in 2017.

Cincinnati Bearcats
With very little fanfare, the Tommy Tuberville era has ended with the Bearcats, and the program stayed in state to hire their new head man, former Ohio State interim head coach Luke Fickell. I am not certain how this will play out, as Fickell was just 6-6 in his lone season as interim head coach, and he inherits a roster that is essentially bare of any real talent. He does, however, get the benefit in coaching what should be a very watered down AAC East in 2017.
What To Be Excited About: Offense
One has to be excited about the prospect of having a healthy Hayden Moore back at QB in 2017, as he was limited to just seven games in 2016. If Moore can get it together and stay on the field, he could be due for a terrific fall, but if the health issues continue, all of the excitement goes down the drain, and the Bearcats fall from fourth in the East, which is where I have projected them, to last.
Khalil Lewis and Devin Gray both return at WR this fall after combining for 106 receptions and 1465 yards last fall. They should give Moore instant impact in the passing game, and that is a good thing for a team trying to erase the disaster that was 2016.
Three starters also return on the line in LT Ryan Stout, RG Will Steur, and RT Korey Cunningham, and all eight of the reserves from the three deep return to give the Bearcats a massive amount of depth up front.
What To Be Concerned About: Offense
The Bearcats failed to score 20 points per contest in 2017, and much of that had to do with injuries or poor play at QB. Moore has got to remain healthy in 2017 for UC to get back to where they can be, an offensive juggernaut. Ross Trail is the only QB coming back behind Moore, and he was mostly terrible last fall.
Tion Greenis gone at RB, and even he was not great last fall. UC rushed for just eight total TDs last season, and that was a huge reason why they finished 1-7 in AAC play. I have got to think that rectifying a bad run game will be a huge top of the order issue with the new staff. As a team, UC finshed with just 118 yards rushing per game, good for just 117th in the nation.
Josh Pasley returns as the starting PK, but hit just 11/17 FG attempts in 2016.
What To Be Excited About: Defense
UC allowed 26.9 points per game last season, which is something that must be rectified as well. The good news is that three out of the front four return with a year of experience behind them. This unit was composed of all freshmen and sophomores a year ago, so one would expect improvement. Kevin Mouhan and Caleb Ashworth should both be starting at DE, while Cortez Broughton returns at DT. Five others return who saw reserve duty as well last fall, giving the Bearcats a luxury up front.
Three of the four members of the secondary also return. Grant Coleman and Alex Thomas will both be back at CB, while Tyrell Gilbert is back at Safety.Every major reserve returns in the secondary as well, including Carter Jacobs, who should get first shot at the open Safety spot.
Sam Geraci returns as well at Punter, where he averaged a shade over 40 yards per punt last fall.
What To Be Concerned About: Defense
UC allowed 2275 yards rushing last fall, and the entire LB corps must be replaced as far as starters are concerned. Antonio Kinard, Eric Wilson, and Mike Tyson all are gone, and that could be a very bad thing. The good news is that every major backup at LB returns, and they will all have to step into starting roles. Perry Young, Jaylylin Minor, and Chris Murphy should all get first shot at the starting jobs. With Alex Pace gone at DT, Marquise Copeland will get first shot at replacing him.
2017 Schedule: 8/31 Austin Peay, 9/9 at Michigan, 9/16 at Miami (Ohio), 9/23 at Navy, 9/30 Marshall, 10/7 UCF, 10/21 SMU, 10/28 USF, 11/4 at Tulane, 11/10 Temple, 11/18 at East Carolina, 11/25 U Conn
Final Overview
The schedule does not set up well for a successful first season for Luke Fickell and staff, and the roster needs some help as well. Tommy Tuberville really screwed this place up during his tenure, and so we are looking at a complete reset.
The schedule is fairly brutal for the most part, including three straight road trips in the first half of the season. I would place the over/under for wins at around four, but I would bet on the lower end of that for 2017.

U Conn Huskies
After a 3-3 start in Randy Edsell's first year back as head coach of the Huskies, the wheels came off of the wagon, and U Conn lost their final six games of the season to finish 3-9. Edsell does not currently enjoy the sae talent level that he had during his first run as coach of the Huskies, and getting the program back up to par may be more difficult the second time around, based on possibly how Edsell left the school the first time around. Nobody possibly expects the high school kids to know about that, but the opposing recruiters still do, and will use it. It will also be a tough go because of the lacking recruiting talent in the area that the school is located in, and the lagging fan support of college football in the region, which all schools in the New England region suffer from to a point.
What To Be Excited About: Offense
The Huskies have succeeded when they were able to run the ball well in the past, and the good news there is that three starters return on the line in LT Matt Peart, C Ryan Crozier, and RG Brendan Vechery. This will provide a building block of sorts, as the foundation of rebuilding any offense starts up front.
With some decent help up front, Arkeel Newsome may have a shot to jump out at RB this fall. He finished with 715 yards and five scores last fall, but improvement is expected.
Bryant Sherrifs returns at QB, but must play a full slate to find any success for the Huskies. He averaged 223 yards per game las fall in nine games.
What To Be Concerned About: Offense
Those two open holes on the line could be a problem if not filled early and consistently. Steve Hashemi will get first shot at LG, and is a senior, while Trey Rutherford, another senior, gets first crack at RT.
Sherrifs needs to stay healthy at QB, because backup QB Donovan Williams was thoroughly unimpressive in three games as a freshman, and there is no other real option as far as depth is concerned. Williams tossed just one TD in three games, and threw five picks.
Finding someone to pass to is also a difficult thing to do with this roster. Noel Thomas caught 100 passes last fall for 1189 yards and is gone. Herby Mayala, the primary second starter last fall, finished with just 23 receptions, and never saw the end zone. Depth after Mayala is just depressing.
Bobby Puyol is gone at PK, but he hit just 13/18 FG attempts last season, so a change may be good there, but it remains to be seen who will win the job. Michael Tarbutt will get first look, is a senior, and has not attempted a FG for the Huskies.
What To Be Excited About: Defense
The Husky defense, even in bad years, often is the strongest part of the team and has always allowed U Conn to hang around. Last season, they just wore out behind an offense that scored just 14.8 points per game.
The good news is that the possibility of a turnaround, in parts, does exist. Again, on the line, the Huskies will return three of four starters in DE Cole Ornsby (eight TFLs), Luke Carrezola, who also played LB, and DT Foley Fatukasi. Carrezola led the team in TFLs with 11. Depth should not be an issue, as three of the top four top reserves on the final two deep will also return.
The Huskies should be in solid shape on the edge, as both OLBs return from last fall in Vontae Diggs and Junior Joseph. They combined for 165 tackles on the season in 2016, and will be a center piece to the edge defense.
What To Be Concerned About: Defense
The Husky defense allowed just 3.91 yards per carry last fall, but that number is at risk, as there are two key components that need replacing, DT and MLB. Mikal Myers is gone at DT, while Matt Walsh departs as well at MLB. Kevin Murphy, just a RS Sophomore, will get first look at DT, while EJ Levenberry is the candidate currently at MLB. Levenberry did manage 37 tackles as a key reserve last fall in 11 games.
The best player on defense last season was Obi Melifonwu, their key starting safety, but he is gone to the NFL now. He finished with 118 tackles last fall, and led the team with four picks. Also leaving is CB Jhavon Williams, who finished with 57 tackles, seven PBUs, a pair of forced fumbles, and a pick. John Robinson IV is in line to possibly compete to take the open CB spot, but is just a sophomore this season, while Marsh Terry, another sophomore of the red shirt variety, will get a shot at Safety. Jamar Summers, who broke up seven passes and forced two fumbles, becomes the new leader in the secondary, while Anthony Watkins returns at starting safety.
Justin Wain is also gone at punter, and that is a bit of a blow after he averaged over 41 yards per punt in 2016.Brett Graham, a sophomore, is in front of the competition there.
2017 Schedule: 8/31 Holy Cross, 9/9 USF, 9/16 at Virginia, 9/30 at SMU, 10/6 Memphis, 10/14 at Temple, 10/21 Tulsa, 10/28 Missouri, 11/4 East Carolina, 11/11 at UCF, 11/18 at Boston College (Fenway Park), 11/25 at Cincinnati
Final Overview
I just see absolutely now way that U Conn will be better in 2017 than they were last fall, and in fact could be a bit worse, and the schedule, and of course, their overall lack of talent on the entirety of the roster, will be the driving force. The Huskies do not have enough offense, not nearly enough, to push through, and they play a three out of four game road stint in the middle of the season, followed by three consecutive games away from East Hartford to close out the season. That is a solid recipe for disaster with this football team. I see only two real chances at wins this season in games against Holy Cross and East Carolina, and anything else is a bonus.

East Carolina Pirates
The Pirate administration fired Ruffin McNeill after the 2015 season. I very much thought this to be a major mistake, and am still not convinced that the firing, followed by the hiring of former Duke OC Scottie Montgomery, was not a major error in judgement. The Pirates finished 3-9 in the first season under Montgomery, and were not nearly competitive most of the time. All but one of those losses came by double digits, and the final four losses were all by 20 points or more. Getting the Pirates back to legitimate will be a huge task.
What To Be Excited About: Offense
Although I am cautiously optimistic about the QB position, Gardner Minshew could be a solid starter for the Pirates in 2017. He played in seven games last season, and passed for 1347 yards and eight TDs to just four picks, as the coaching staff kept a tight leash on him at times. He averaged just 192 yards passing per game, and I am certain that this number will increase a good deal this fall.
Quay Johnson should be his first target, as he caught 58 passes last fall for 563 yards. He is the most senior and most productive starting receiver coming back, but there were huge losses at the position. Johnson should be in line for a breakout season.
The offensive line has got to be better just based on experience from last season alone. Four starters return in LT Messiah Price, LG Garrett McGhin, RG Christian Matau, and RT Brandon Smith. Four listed reserves from the end of last fall all return to provide depth.
What To Be Concerned About: Offense
With Minshew the most likely to start at QB, there is no depth behind him at all, and that could be a problem if the injury bug continues to bite at the position as it did last season with Phillip Nelson. If Minshew cannot stand up and win this job in fall camp, the position is a total enigma.
The Pirates had to conver WR James Summers to RB to start there last fall, and he is now gone. Anthony Scott returns as a senior, and may get first crack at being the starter, but finished with just 384 yards last fall. Shawn Furlow, the prime backup candidate, carried the ball just five times last season.
The los of Zay Jones, the all-time NCAA leading receiver, is a massive loss. It could take multiple receivers to make up for his production, but who will they be? Jimmy Williams and Brandon Bishop are both gone as well. Terrell Green, the top option and backup to Jones last season caught just seven passes. and Deondre Farrier is the only other reserve returning.
The kicking game needs to be rebuilt as well at PK. Davis Plowman hit 17/23 FG attempts last season, but is gone. Jake Verity, a sophomore, hit 1/2 attempts last season, and is in line to start, bvut has very limited experience.
What To Be Excited About: Defense
This was a defensive unit in crisis in 2016. The Pirates gave up 36 points per game on the year, and answers need to be found.
The good news up front is that both DEs return in Demage Bailey and Justin Brown. Brown was not a full time starter, but has enough experience, and that is what the Pirates need. That said, both of these guys really need to step up production levels in a major way.
Some good news comes at LB, where three starters are back in the 3-4 set. Kiante Anderson is back at SAM, while Yiannis Bowden returns at the RUSH spot. Bowden has experience at both spots. Jordan Williams will return inside at the WILL spot. Williams led the team with 77 tackles last fall, while Bowden finished with 42.
Three returning starters are to be found in the secondary as well. Both CBs return in the form of Colby Gore, who started as a freshman, and Bobby Fulp, who will be a senior. Fulp shared his position with Chris Love, who is also back as a senior. Travon Simmons will be back to start at FS. In all, four key reserves all will return to add depth.
What To Be Concerned About: Defense
The answer here is almost everything, while so many players return, not may provided any kind of real punch on the defensive side of the football in 2017, and it may be hard pressed to believe that a major shift could happen inside of one off-season.
Demetri McGill and Fred Presley are both gone at NG, which provides a major hole in the middle of a defense that allowed an average of 5.42 yards per carry last fall. Cam White and Dayon Pratt contributed a combined 123 tackles, and both are gone from the LB corps. Deshaun Amos, who had 51 tackles at SS, is also gone. That is a ton of productivity missing as we head into fall camp.
The punting game is in reset mode as well, after Worth Gregory moved on. He is another huge blow, as he averaged well over 42 yards per punt as a senior. Jake Verity, who may be the starting PK, may have to pull double duty unless someone is found in fall camp.
2017 Schedule: 9/2 James Madison, 9/9 at West Virginia, 9/16 at Virginia Tech, 9/30 USF, 10/7 Temple, 10/14 at UCF, 10/21 at BYU, 10/28 at Houston, 11/4 at U Conn, 11/11 Tulane, 11/18 Cincinnati, 11/25 at Memphis
Final Overview
I cannot find one single game where I would call the Pirates an out and out favorite in 2017, and that includes the home opener against FCS member James Madison, where I have called the Dukes an early 1.5 point favorite. Any win will be hard fought, and will be a bonus based on the talent that the Pirates have on hand. This team was a mess in 2016, and it seemed that with the firing of McNeill, everything fell apart. I am not saying that the Pirates were a conference contender with him, but the firing seemed strangely political to me. That said, I would be greatly shocked to see East Carolina finish anywhere above the AAC East cellar in 2017.

Houston Cougars
2016 had to go down as the ultimate in disappointing seasons for the Cougars, as what was considered to be a season that would see them making an outsider push towards the national title ended in a four loss season. A year in which it looked like an absolute in that Houston would be invited to the big table as a member of the Big 12 all went for naught. Tom Herman, their coach who was the hottest prospect for poaching in the nation, was poached, and the school not getting invited to the Big 12 and Power Five was a major reason for that happening, and it seemed at times like has was already half out the door.
Major Applewhite will finally get his chance to be a head football coach, after most of us had known that this day would come for much of the last several years. Now he gets to prove if the faith placed in him was correct, or if he was just another career assistant that was over hyped. The clock starts now.
What To Be Excited About: Offense
It's time for Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen to shine for the Cougars. He has come in with some big fanfare, and there is no reason to believe that he can stand up to it. He passed for 16 TDs as a freshman for the Aggies before transferring out, and with Applewhite working directly with him, he should flourish in the Houston system. Kyle Postma and D'Eriq King also return, but the job is Allen's to lose at this point.
The Cougars rushing attack was not great last fall, averaging just over 140 yards per game rushing, and Duke Catalon, a Texas transfer, never seemed to be entirely healthy. Every scholarship RB that was on the roster last season, however, returns, and if they can get lucky on the health issue, this unit could break loose. With Allen being more of a pure passer than Greg Ward was, the run game should look a bit more traditional this time around.
Steven Dunbar and Linell Bonner will both return this fall at receiver, giving Allen one of the more experienced duos in college football at the WR position. They have a combined 38 career starts, and have played in 62 total combined football games during their Houston careers. A solid group of sophomores who all saw extended playing time late last season will also be on hand to lead the way in the passing game.
The line was plenty raw by the end of last season, with seven freshmen or sophomores on the two deep for the bowl game. The good news in 2017 is that the entire two deep roster for the offensive line from that game all return.
What To Be Concerned About: Offense
This is going to seem like nitpicking at this point, but that's really all there is to do right now on the offensive side of the football.
Allen has to be the guy they think he can be at QB. If he fails, if he does not play up to expectations, the Cougars only have Postma and King to turn to, and neither guy is a stand up passer who can really be a focal point of the offense, and everything changes dynamically for the worst. I don't think that this will be an issue, but there is that concern.
The offensive line was very young last season, and they have to do a better job in the run blocking area of the game. As a team, the Cougars were held to just 3.41 yards per carry last fall, and that is not going to get it done. The inability to consistently run the football last season was a huge reason why the defense got mauled in games that the Cougars lost (specifically the Memphis game). Houston must work on better clock management, and better ball control in 2017, and the line will be key here.
The Cougars also lose PK Ty Cummings, who hit 16/20 FGs last season. Joel Scarbrough, a sophomore, is in line to take the job, but has attempted just one FG in his career, and missed it.
What To Be Excited About: Defense
The Cougars were a fired up unit most weeks last season on defense, and it all starts and ends up front with all world DE Ed Oliver. Oliver, a sophomore in 2017, finished last season by recording 22.5 TFLs, five sacks, and 66 total tackles. He is a beast up front, and will be one of the most exciting defensive players in the nation to watch. Nick Thurmon also returns up front after finishing with 22 tackles last season.
Matthew Adams finished 2016 as the leading tackler with 82, and he returns in 2017 at ILB. D'Juan Hines finished with 44 tackles at OLB, and also returns. Both will be seniors this fall.
Garret Davis and Khalil Williams both return at their Safety spots. Davis finished with 65 tackles last season, and broke up five passes, while Williams finished with 69 tackles, and broke up three passes.
Punter Dane Roy is back after a solid freshman effort saw him average 40.63 yards per punt on 4.5 punts per game last fall. He looks like a possible breakout talent in 2017 for the Cougars.
What To Be Concerned About: Defense
With success, comes losses, and the Cougars have some losses on the defensive side of the football in 2017 to deal with.
Cameron Malveaux is gone on the line after recording eight TFLs last fall. He was dangerous enough to distract teams from spending all of their resources on Oliver, because teams had to keep an eye on him as well. Zach Vaughn, a junior, gets first shot at replacing him, and it is a huge job.
Tyus Bowser and Seven Adams, two of the more successful LBs in Houston history, are both gone, leaving an enormous hole in two spots in the LB corps. Junior Emele Egbule will look to replace Bowser at the OLB spot, while Nomluis Fruge will take a swing at replacing Adams inside.
Both corners need to be replaced after Howard Wilson left early for the NFL, and ended up with the Browns as his reward. Brandon Wilson departs as well. Javian Smith will have a chance to replace Brandon Wilson, but will be just a sophomore in 2017. Jeremy Winchester, a junior, is next up to replace Howard Wilson.
2017 Schedule: 9/2 at UTSA, 9/9 at Arizona, 9/16 Rice, 9/23 Texas Tech, 9/30 at Temple, 10/7 SMU, 10/14 at Tulsa, 10/19 Memphis, 10/28 East Carolina, 11/4 at USF, 11/18 at Tulane, 11/24 Navy
Final Overview
The Cougars may be a bit on the overlooked side for 2017, and only because of the coaching change and a few minor areas of uncertainty. Looking at their schedule, the Cougars could possibly be in for a ten win season. If Allen can seamlessly transition in at QB, if the line can improve on the run block situation, and become more mature overall on the field, then the offense should be just fine. There were some major losses in the back of the defense, but with Oliver returning, the unit still has a massive superstar talent who could one day be a number one overall pick in the NFL draft. If the new starters at CB and LB can gel quickly, and there is another answer found up fron to replace Malveaux, this team could challenge USF for the AAC crown. Getting by Navy and Memphis will be key in the West, but the Cougars could have an edge here.

Memphis Tigers
Memphis had an up and down debut season under Mike Norvell as head coach, as they finished just 3-3 on the year to wrap up with an 8-5 overall record the culminated with a 20 point loss to Western Kentucky in the lower tiered Boca Raton Bowl. There were some positives (Riley Ferguson, beating Houston, beating Temple), but there were some down times as well (44 point loss to SMU, 29 point loss to Tulsa). What the Tigers need to find in 2017 is some solid consistency and the ability to show that the needle will continue to point up in the Norvell ear, much as it had under Justin Fuente before him.
What To Be Excited About: Offense
There were not many people outside of Memphis that believed that Paxton Lynch could leave, and the Tiger passing game would not miss out all that much. Riley Ferguson came in as a transfer from Coffeyville CC, and he took the reins immediately, passing for 3698 yards and 32 TDs to just ten picks on the season. Memphis still managed to score 38.8 points per game last season, and they could very well do that again, and they may have to. David Moore moves up from third to second string behind Ferguson, but two incoming freshmen could give him a push.
Doroland Dorceus failed to hit 1000 yards last fall, but still managed to rush for 810 yards, and scored nine times, all while averaging 6.14 yards per carry. He is back, as is second leading rusher, sophomore Patrick Taylor, who rushed for 546 yards on the season. They should provide a solid combo punch to keep defenses honest this season. Darrell Henderson and Tony Pollard also both return as key reserves in the rushing attack for the Tigers.
Anthony Miller was one of the most explosive receivers in the nation last season, as he posted a line of 95-1434-14, and averaged 15.09 yards per catch. He also averaged 110.3 yards receiving per game, and will return as potentially the top ranked receiver in the AAC returning in 2017. Phil Mayhue, who caught 42 passes of his own, also will return. In all, five of the top six receivers on the season ending two deep roster return, giving Ferguson one heck of a stable to throw the ball to this fall.
The line is set up to return four starters from last fall. LT Trevon Tate, LG Dustin Woodward, C Drew Kyser, and RG Gabe Kuhn are all set to return. Every reserve on the two deep is set to return as well, with junior Jace Neville looking to step in and start at RT.
What To Be Concerned About: Offense
There really is not much to be concerned about at this point. The Tigers are one of the deepest offensive units in the nation right now, so the entire focus should be on play calling and getting everything ready for the season.
Only Daniel Hurd is gone at receiver, but there are several candidates left to take his place and move on, while the only other real hole heading into fall camp is at RT, where Neville should get first crack at starting after being the understudy there last fall.
The big loss will be replacing 21 made FGs by Jake Elliott, who has graduated. Evan Michael, his backup from last season, will get the first shot at the job as a senior who has never really worked as the PK in a game before as a Tiger. Elliott was a four year starter.
What To Be Excited About: Defense
If the Tigers are going to have one major issue that blocks them from winning the AAC West this fall, it's the defense. This unit allowed 28.8 points per game last fall, and forced their offense into shootouts too many times. In each of the five losses in 2017, the team gave up 42 or more points.
Ernest Settles and Jonathon Cooper both return up front, where they combined for 11.5 TFLs last fall. More will be expected of them if the Tigers are to improve.
Curtis Akins and Genard Avery will both return at LB. They combined for 155 tackles last fall, and much of what happens in the middle of the defense will be conducted through them. They should be a solid anchor for the defense in the 2017 season.
What To Be Concerned About: Defense
There are issues almost everywhere that need to be addressed for the Tigers to have complete success in 2017.
Donald Pennington is gone at NT, and they will need a force to gum up the works up the middle. Emmanuel Cooper is the next guy in line, and will be a junior this fall.
DeMarco Montgomery (KAT) and Ty Northern (STAR) are also gone this fall. They combined for 80 tackles last fall. Bryce Huff and Anthony Young are expected to try and step up to fill those jobs.
Three new starters need to be found in the secondary this fall. Chauncey Lanier and Arthur Maulet are both gone at CB, while Chris Morley is also gone at SS. Dontrell Nelson, the only key reserve CB they had last fall, is gone as well. Shaun Rupert could be a fill in at SS, while Jonathon Cook is back at FS.
Nick Jacobs worked as the punter for seven games last fall, but averaged just 38.42 yards per punt, and that will not get it done with this defense behind him.
2017 Schedule: 8/31 UL-Monroe, 9/9 at UCF, 9/16 UCLA, 9/23 Southern Illinois, 9/30 at Georgia State, 10/6 at U Conn, 11/14 Navy, 10/19 at Houston, 10/27 Tulane, 11/3 at Tulsa, 11/18 SMU, 11/25 East Carolina
Final Overview
The Memphis Tigers may have the best returning offense in the entire AAC West, but what will be a stumbling block towards winning the conference title will be their defense. The offense can win most days in offensive shootouts, but that will not always work, and it failed on more than a couple of occasions last season. If the Tigers are to hold off Houston and Navy and any possible dark horse candidates in the division, they have to fix that defense. They are a top three team in the division now, but could dominate with improvements. They are close.

Navy Midshipmen
Navy finished 9-5 last season, but won the Western Division of the AAC with a 7-1 conference mark, and they find themselves in what I consider to be a three team race for the division title in 2017. The question that I do have about Navy is will the team that started the season 9-2 prevail in 2017, or will the team that ended the season on a three game losing streak, including a loss at Army, come in to play?
What To Be Excited About: Offense
When Navy lost Will Worth to injury last fall, they had to turn to a youngster in Zach Abey to lead the way. Abey, however, was not the passer that Worth was, and the team struggled around him. Abey is someone I am betting on to have learned lessons from being thrown to the fire last fall, and I am looking for a breakthrough from him. There are some talented, yet inexperienced trigger men behind him in Malcolm Perry and Garrett Lewis to step up if Abey cannot retain the job he held at the end of last season.
Chris High was the second leading rusher on the team in 2016 at FB, and is slated to return for the Middies. He only managed to rush for 546 yards, but did score seven times, and averaged 6.42 yards per carry, so he can show some explosion up the gut.
Bennet Mohring did not get a ton of work at the PK spot last fall, but did hit 8/10 FG attempts, and will return.
What To Be Concerned About: Offense
Although Navy seems to find bodies to replace departed players every year with relative ease, there are concerns to be noted for certain this fall.
The line is missing three starters from last fall, and that is concerning, as they need a new center, and need to replace the entire left side of the line as well. Jake Hawk (LT), Laurent Njiki (LG), and Maurice Morris (C) were all primary backups at those positions last season, and all return. RG Evan Marlin and RT Andrew Wood both return to the fray.
The QB situation may not be as stable as it seems. Abey did not exactly blow the roof off for anyone when he was given the chance after the injury to Worth. He did manage to rush for 76 yards per contest, but his passing skills were not apparent, as he tossed just one scoring pass against five picks, and completed just 57% of his passes.
Even with High returning at FB, there is no depth behind him, and he was listed as the backup on the two deep for the bowl game. Losing both Dishan Romine and Calvin Cass, Jr at the SB position will not be helpful either. Four of the top five rushers are gone from last season, and that is serious production that needs replacing, especially when Worth was worth more than double that they got from anyone else at QB.
Jamir Tillman, the team's leading receiver with 40 receptions, is gone. Not one other receiver had more tan ten receptions last fall. That is a big problem to deal with.
What To Be Excited About: Defense
Navy had enough weapons laying about to be able to allow 31 points per game last season, but I do not think the same is true this fall.
The strength up front will be in the LB corps in 2017, as three of four starters return in DJ Palmore, Taylor Heflin, and Micah Thomas. Hudson Sullivan was in direct competition at the end of the season with Heflin, so having him back is a plus as well. Eight total LBs from the season ending three deep all are set to return, giving Navy one of the deepest groups of LBs in the AAC.
All four starting members of the secondary return as well for Navy in 2017. Tyris Wootenand Jarid Ryan both return at CB, and Alohi Goodman and Sean Williams both return to start at Safety. Seven reserves from the season ending three deep all return as well, again, giving Navy considerable depth.
Alex Barta, who averaged well over 42 yards per punt is gone, but there may not be need to worry, as Erik Harris returns as a junior, and averaged 45 yards per punt in six games.
What To Be Concerned About: Defense
The only issue I see here is on the defensive line. LE Jarvis Polu is the lone returning starter up front in the 3-4 set. The loss of Amos Mason (8.5 TFLs in 2016) will be hard to replace, and NG Patrick Forrestal is gone as well. Sophomore Jackson Pittman and senior Dylan Fischer will compete at NG, while Anthony Villalobos will attempt to jump from third to first string to replace Mason at RE. Tyler Sayles and Josh Webbcould jump into the competition at RE, as both were backups at LE last year.
2017 Schedule: 9/1 FAU, 9/9 Tulane, 9/23 Cincinnati, 9/30 at Tulsa, 10/7 Air Force, 10/14 at Memphis, 10/21 UCF, 11/2 at Temple, 11/11 SMU, 11/18 at Notre Dame, 11/24 at Houston, 12/9 Army (at Philadelphia)
Final Overview
I believe in Ken Niumatololo, and that is why  am giving Navy a fighting chance in the West of the AAC in 2017. The offensive questions alone may make me look crazy, but Navy seems to always find answers where questions exist, and I have faith that they will once again. The main block that concerns me more than the talent issues, is the schedule has them going on the road to play both Houston and Memphis, the two teams I have them in a race with. The good news is that a hot start to the season could be in line, as Navy does not travel away from home until 9/30, and gets Air Force at home. There is an opportunity to win the division for the second straight season, or they could finish third, or worse. It's all up in the air.

Tulsa Golden Hurricanes
Tulsa surprised several people nationally by wining 10 games last year, and it appears that Phillip Montgomery has the Golden Hurricane on the right track, but the major question for Tulsa in 2017 is how do they replace their losses, specifically Dane Evans at QB, James Flanders at RB, and and Keevan Lucas and Josh Atkinson at WR? They are losing a ton of production for the offensive side of the football, and the challenge will be finding the pieces to move forward. Let's take a look at what to expect in 2017.
What To Be Excited About: Offense
Everything is going to start at the foundation level, and that is the line. Four starters return here in Tackles Evan Plagg and Willie Wright, OG Tyler Bowling, and C Chandler Miller. Zach Uhles, who lists as a Center, will likely shift over to start at RG, which is the lone open spot. He has some starting experience, so the line should be the strength of this unit in 2017.
James Flanders is gone after leading the team with 1629 yards and 18 rushing scores, but D'Angelo Brewer does return after rushing for 1435 yards and seven scores. Look for another massive season from him in this offense, especially with the ability too run behind this line, which may be one of the best in the AAC.
TE Chris Minter caught three TD passes last season, despite catching just six passes. Look for him to get an expanded role in the passing game, especially in red zone situations.
Redford Jones should be returning as a senior at PK after hitting 21/26 FG attempts in 2016.
What To Be Concerned About: Offense
Replacing a QB like Dane Evans, one of the all-time leaders in passing yards at Tulsa, is never going to be an easy situation. Heading into fall camp, Chad President and Luke Skipper appear locked down in battle, and this fight may carry into opening week. President attempted just two passes last season, and Skipper is a RS Freshman.
Finding more rushing punch to back up Brewer is also a high priority. Ramadi Warren and Rowdy Simon are in a fight to win the backup job at RB behind Brewer, and Simon is the only one who played last season, carrying the ball just 18 times. Corey Taylor and Javon Thomas are locked in to win the UB job that Flanders held last fall. Taylor has the lead as we head into the Summer.
Finding replacements at WR are going to be a massive undertaking after Tulsa lost 2238 yards of total receiving fro their top two guys. Justin Hobbs returns to start after catching 50 passes last season, and that is a great place to start. RS Freshman Jordan Brown backs him up. Keenen Johnson is ahead at one open starting spot (IR), while Broderick Umblance is in a battle with Josh Stewart for the other open WR job as we head into Summer and Fall camp.
What To Be Excited About: Defense
Tulsa is all set as we head into 2017 at the DE position. Tulsa has a solid combo coming back in Jesse Brubaker and Jeremy Smith. They combined for 22 TFLs last fall and 92 tackles as a combo, giving Tulsa one of the best sets of bookends in the league.
The secondary is in very good shape as well, with three of four starters returning. Jordan Mitchell and McKinley Whitfield both return at Safety. Mitchell has 16 starts under his belt, and finished last fall with nine PBUs and 61 tackles. Whitfield finished with 59 tackles and four PBUs, and also blocked a pair of kicks on special teams.
Kerwin Thomas is the leader in that secondary with 28 total career starts. He finished with 58 tackles and another nine PBUs last fall, and will be the guy that teams will try to avoid in man to man match ups in 2017.
Craig Suits returns at LB as well after finishing with 79 tackles and nine TFLs last fall, and will be the heart of the middle of the defense.
What To Be Conerned About: Defense
Tulsa needs to replace both tackles, meaning that the middle of the defense could end up being vulnerable. Kolton Shindelar, a senior, and Shemarr Robinson, a sophomore, hold the lead after spring wrapped up to start, but the battles are raging behind them for the backup roles, so depth is muddle at this time.
With Suits lining up at the WLB position, the other two positions at LB are in flux heading into Fall camp. Sophomore Diamon Cannon has the early lead at SLB, while Cooper Edmiston, a sophomore, has the early lead in the middle. That could give Tulsa a very young and vulnerable middle of their front seven.
There is only one open hole in the secondary that needs patching, and that is at CB, where yet another sophomore, Reggie Robinson III, is in the lead for the starting role.
There is also an open job at Punter after the departure of Dalton Parks, who averaged 41.75 yards per punt last season. Thomas Bennett, another sophomore, will be leading the way as we head into the Fall.
2017 Schedule: 9/2 at Oklahoma State, 9/9 UL-Lafayette, 9/16 at Toledo, 9/23 New Mexico, 9/30 Navy, 10/7 at Tulane, 10/14 Houston, 10/21 at U Conn, 10/27 at SMU, 11/3 Memphis, 11/16 at USF, 11/25 Temple
Final Overview
It's going to be a very hard pressed idea to think that Tulsa can win ten games again in 2017. There are far to many questions that need answering, and far too much production to replace. The defense will be younger than it was a year ago, and that unit managed to allow almost 30 points per game. I see Tulsa as a bowl team, but to say that with all of their questions, and all of their youth, that they can win the AAC West, well, that would not be responsible to say. Tulsa is still on track to be a regular thorn in this division, but this year, they may be taking a step or two back.

SMU Mustangs
Chad Morris was hired at SMU a couple of years ago to great fanfare, but now he finds himself in the precarious situation of having to prove that the Mustangs program is on the right track, and by the right track, this is the year that they should turn the corner and get to a bowl, which would be the third season under Morris. The Mustangs fell just shy of that goal in season two, so going in reverse now would be detrimental.
What To Be Excited About: Offense
If SMU is going to turn a corner in 2017, it will all come down on offense, and down to the QB job, which belongs to sophomore Ben Hicks. Hicks tossed 19 TD passes last fall, but still managed to toss 15 picks as well. He can improve his TD to INT ratio, and with it, SMU will improve around him. In all he passed for 2930 yards, and passed for 244.2 yards per game.
Braedon West returns at RB after rushing for 1036 yards and five scores, and he averaged 86.33 yards per game. Ke'Mon Freeman rushed for 651 yards as the backup, and he returns as well. The top four backs from the season finale last fall all return in order.
All three starting receivers also return from last fall, led by Courtland Sutton, who posted a line of 76-1246-10. James Proche will also return after posting 57-709-6. Xavier Castille, Kevin Thomas, Shelby Walker, and Alex Honey, among others, all return in one of the deepest receiving corps in the nation.
Four starters return on the offensive line as well. LT Nick Natour, LG Daniel McCarty, C Evan Brown, and RG Jerry Saena all return up front, with sophomore Bryce Wilds leeding the way to start at RT after being the top backup there last fall.
Josh Williams hit 17/22 FGs last fall, and returns as a junior.
What To Be Concerned About: Offense
The Mustangs will still be rather young in certain areas, and are still learning as a unit, but there is incredibly little to be concerned about on this side of the football. The unit scored 27.7 points per game last fall, and can likely do better in 2017 with more experience.
The biggest deciding factor to see how far this unit can go is Hicks. He needs to reduce his INT totals from 15, and increase his TDs to over 20, and this unit should fly high behind him. It really does come down to him.
What To Be Excited About Defense
The LB group will really have to step up this fall to backup what should be a very young defensive line. two of three starters return in MIKE backer Anthony Rhone and STAR backer Kyran Mitchell. Mitchell led the team with 67 tackles last fall, while Rhone finished with 47.
Justin Lawler will be the lone returnee on the line at DE, but he did lead the team with 15 TFLs. Lawlor finished with 65 tackles overall.
Two starters will be back in the secondary, one each at CB (Jordan Wyatt) and Safety (Rodney Clemons).
What To Be Concerned About: Defense
The unit was abysmal last season, allowing 36.6 points per game. The issues that plagued this football team may get even worse this season.
Three starters departed on the line, and that is a huge gap for a team that will need to find out how to stop the run. Delontae Scott and Michael Radejo will battle out at DE. Chris Biggurs will have the lead at one tackle, while Mason Gentyr and JT Williams will battle at the NT position.
Matt McNew will likely be the new starter at the WILL backer position, but he will have to step up big to help create some support for a line in flux.
Sophomore Eric Sutton will be in the lead for the open CB job, and Mikial Onu leads for the open Safety job.
Jamie Sackville is back at Punter, but he only averaged 39.62 yards per punt last fall, and will need to improve to help support his leaky defense.
2017 Schedule: 9/2 Stephen F. Austin, 9/9 North Texas, 9/16 at TCU, 9/23 Arkansas State, 9/30 U Conn, 10/7 at Houston, 10/21 at Cincinnati, 10/27 Tulsa, 11/4 UCF, 11/11 at Navy, 11/18 at Memphis, 11/25 Tulane
Final Overview
SMU is at a crossroads point in AAC play this fall, and they need to push around the corner and get themselves into a bowl game in order to show the progress that they have made up until this point in the Chad Morris era. A bowl game, with this offense, is a possibility this season, but not if the Mustangs continue to give up points in massive chunks. SMU needs to push forward, because at this point, moving backwards is not an option.

Tulane Green Wave
Year one of the Willie Fritz era at Tulane went about as well as could be expected. Tulane won four total games in year one, but three of those four wins came outside of AAC play, and the Green Wave finished just 1-7 inside of conference play. It is going to be a bit of a process to get this thing turned around, as when Fritz arrived, there was not much at all to work with. He will take his time to build his team around him, and that may get frustrating, but Fritz is one of the better coaches in the game, and if anyone can turn this thing around, it would be him.
What To Be Excited About: Offense
With struglles at the QB position last fall, the Green Wave found themselves a solid RB in Dontrelle Hilliard, who led the team with 759 yards rushing and nine scores. He averaged 5.62 yards per carry, and will return to give Tulane a player that they can build around while settling down the offense.
Terren Encalade and Darnell Mooney will also both return as starting receivers. They combined for 60 receptions and 767 yards last fall, and also combined for eight TD receptions.
Three starters return on the line in C Junior Diaz, Leeward Brown, and John Leglue. It is not known where Brown and Leglue will line up, but they have solid experience at this point.
What To Be Concerned About: Offense
Glen Cuielette is back at QB, but he was not good in 2016. He finished by completing just 42.6% of his passes for 1309 yards and ten scores to eight picks, and averaged just 109.1 yards per game. If Fritz is going to get this offense churning, he may have to find someone to push him or just simply take the job, but who knows who that will be right now.
Even with Hilliard back at RB, Josh Rounds and Lazedric Thompson are gone, and they combined for 1264 yards rushing and 14 scores. Those numbers are going to be tough to reproduce for any newcomers to the position this fall.
Two new starters also need to be found on the line, and a reshuffling of that deck could be in line overall, giving more reasons to be worried about an under producing passing game in general.
Only two receivers caught more than 20 passes last season, and finding skilled production here will be a major camp challenge as well.
Andrew DiRocco was not very good at PK last season, hitting just 62.5% of his FG attempts, but he will need to be replaced anyway.
What To Be Excited About: Defense
The strength of this defense may actually be the secondary, where all four starters return.Parry Nickerson and Donnie Lewis, Jr. both return at CB, and Jarrod Franklin will be back at FS, along with Roderic Teamer, Jr. at SS. This group combines for 93 total career starts. Lewis and Nickerson combined for 18 PBUs last season, and also combined for six picks.
Sean Wilson will be back at NT in 2017, after finishing with five TFLs last fall, and Ade Aruna is back at DE. Aruna finished with 10 TFLs off of the edge, and totaled 43 tackles last season.
Zachery Harris played in nine games last season, and finished with 45 tackles at LB. He returns as well.
Zachary Block returns at Punter, and he will give his defense a chance to succeed after averaging 40.76 yards per punt last fall as a sophomore.
What To Be Concerned About: Defense
The LB unit, overall, was hit with some serious loss, including Nico Marley, who finished second on the team in TFLs, and led the team in tackles. Two new starters need to be found, with Rae Juan Marbley and Eric Bowie looking like leading candidates early. They combined for 48 tackles as reserves last season.
Losing Tanzel Smart in the middle up front will really hurt the Green Wave, as he was one of the most productive defenders up front in school history.
The Unit as a while, gave up 27.7 points per game last season. I see some areas where improvement can show, but this is still very much a work in progress.
2017 Schedule: 9/2 Grambling, 9/9 at Navy, 9/16 at Oklahoma, 9/23 Army, 10/7 Tulsa, 10/14 at FIU, 10/21 USF, 10/27 at Memphis, 11/4 Cincinnati, 11/11 East Carolina, 11/18 Houston, 11/25 at SMU
Final Overview
Remember what I said about Tulane being a work in progress. When Fritz got to New Orleans, this program was a disaster, and in some ways, it still is. Investments have been made into this program, but it will take some time for the talent level to grow, and it is not nearly there yet on offense, specifically at QB. With the schedule on hand, and the talent that exists, or doesn't, Tulane is looking at another four win season, but there are opportunities for a couple of wins in league play that were not there a year ago. It's progress. Long, slow progress.

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